Do You Know Poop? How to Properly Evaluate Manure

One question that I get from cattle producers this time of the year is, “How good is the grass we have this year?” Since every year is different, that’s a legitimate question, because rainfall and grazing can definitely affect forage quality as we move into winter.  

Cow on grass

One question that I get from cattle producers this time of the year is, “How good is the grass we have this year?”  Since every year is different, that’s a legitimate question, because rainfall and grazing can definitely affect forage quality as we move into winter. Your animals are leaving little clues as to their diet quality around the pasture several times a day in their manure droppings. If you only know what to look for, and a little on what it means, you can have a general idea of how good the forages are.

Those little clues are the manure droppings that your cattle extrude several times a day.  The consistency, size, and height of the droppings can give you a good bit of information about their nutritional intake.  The digestibility of the forage is a direct reflection of the condition of the manure.

Cattle manure comes in three basic forms – splats, pancakes, and piled-high-and-deep (PhD).  Reading these different manure forms can help you to determine the quality of forage you have, and whether you need to supplement or not.

The splat form is when manure hits the ground and splashes.  There is little or no structure to the droppings at this time, and they contain a high amount of moisture.  This condition is the result of cattle consuming forages very high in moisture, protein, and digestibility.  The high digestibility is reflected in a very low fiber level.  Since it’s the undigested fiber in the diet that gives the manure its consistency, the splat has little fiber in the stool.  Also, the splats are broken down quickly by tumblebugs, or other soil organisms, and disappear before too much time.

When your cattle manure is in the splat stage, you don’t have to worry about supplementing nutrients, as long as they have an ample amount of forage to eat.  Forages in this stage should have more than enough of the protein and energy the cattle need.

If the manure comes out with a bit more consistency, but makes a rounded, short pile like a pancake on a griddle, it’s referred to as “pancake” manure.  Here too, the forages should be meeting the protein and energy needs of the cattle, but performance probably won’t be as great as in the “splat” stage.

The fiber levels of the forage have increased somewhat, which gives the manure droppings the greater level of consistency.  However, most of the fiber is being digested, so the protein and energy level should still be meeting the needs of the cattle.

The last stage of manure piles is called “piled-high-and-deep” (PhD).  Just as the name implies, the manure is beginning to stack up when it hits the ground, and has less moisture in the stool.  Someone who actually researched the correlation of digestibility of forage to manure status told me that the one consistent factor in estimating relative digestibility from manure was the moisture content of the pile.  The more moisture in the manure, the greater the digestibility.

When you begin to see the droppings dry out and PhD, you can make two assumptions.  First is that the indigestible fiber content of the forage is increasing, or the digestible fiber in the forage is not being digested as well.  Second is that the cattle are probably deficient in degradable protein.  Remember degradable protein is the part of the protein that is broken down and made available to the rumen microorganisms.

You can’t do much about the increasing fiber level in the forage, except to move to a better pasture.  However, you can begin to supplement with protein when you start to see the manure become more coarse.  Beginning to feed protein supplements when you first see the manure begin to show the PhD stage can correct this degradable protein deficiency and increase the activity of the microorganisms in the rumen to more completely break down the coarser fiber.  High protein cubes, liquid feeds, and protein blocks will work well in providing protein to the rumen.  You need to be sure you have sufficient energy intake for the microorganisms to utilize the protein, but as long as your cattle are just moving into the PhD stage, the protein supplements should work.

Supplements with urea as a source of protein can be used in this situation but be cautious with urea based supplements, as too much urea can be toxic to ruminants.  As long as you add the supplement gradually to the diet, the cattle shouldn’t overeat the urea.  If you are uncomfortable using urea as a protein source, then a cottonseed or soybean meal based feed will work as well.

Increasing the degradable protein to the ruminal microorganisms should allow them to increase their numbers, and therefore increase the amount of fiber that is broken down in the rumen.  The result is that the manure should move back toward the pancake stage from the PhD stage.

If it doesn’t, then chances are that the fiber in the forage is the indigestible type such as lignin or hemi-cellulose.  If that is the case, then your cattle may need both protein and energy supplementation.  If they do, then urea can only be a part of the supplement, as it has no energy value because it is an inorganic substance.  Changing from a urea based protein supplement to an all natural protein supplement (such as cottonseed for soybean meal) should promote a change from the PhD stage of manure to the pancake stage.

If the forage is coarse enough, you probably can’t ever return to the true pancake stage with the manure until you get some new forage growth.  However, with forage this coarse, you can only strive to increase the protein and energy intake of the diet, and hope to utilize as much of the forage as possible.  With very coarse forages you may need to go to a supplement that combines grain, grain by-products, and a protein source to provide a better blend of protein and energy to meet the needs of the livestock.

When looking at the manure characteristics of your cattle, don’t forget to compare the droppings from both the cows and the calves.  As calves get older and depend more on the forage for their nutritional intake, their droppings may coarsen up more than their dam’s.  The reason for this is that the calves have a higher protein requirement, as a percent of diet, than the cows do.  And there are times of the year, such as the latter part of a hot, dry summer, that the forage is not meeting their ruminal protein needs.

Now many of you will say that these calve are still getting milk from their mothers and that should provide some protein.  However, milk doesn’t go into the rumen.  When a calf sucks, a groove forms that bypasses the rumen and delivers the milk directly to the abomasum of the calf.  So in effect the protein supplied from milk is all undegradable, or bypass, protein and not available to the microorganisms in the rumen.

Some work done at Oklahoma State many years ago showed that calves in this type of protein deficient situation gained a pound of extra gain for each 2 to 3 pounds of supplement.  At today’s prices, that about $1.20 worth of gain for each $0.55 of feed cost.  That’s a pretty good return.  So, if you see a more coarse pile of manure from your calves than from the cows, feeding the calves a protein supplement can give you an economic return in improved gains.

Most of my sheep, goat, and deer producing friends will feel slighted because I haven’t mentioned the characteristics of manure from those animals.  When these species have very highly digestible diet, the manure “pills” stick together, and have a higher level of moisture in them.  However, the more distinguishable differences between the pancake and PhD stages of cattle manure are not as readily apparent in sheep, goat, and deer manure.

While I am sure there are some differences in sheep, goat, and deer manure as the forage diet decreases in quality, I, nor anyone else I have talked to, haven’t been able to come up with a set of dependable characteristics to determine this as have been developed for cattle.  So for now, I can’t use the manure from the other species to help determine when to begin supplementing them.

Many times, the more you know about your livestock, the better you can manage them.  Learning about their manure is one of those jewels of management that can help you make nutritional supplementation decisions.

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